"Racial politics," proclaimed New York Times art critic Holland Cotter in April 2005, "is ‘out' at the moment in art." Despite the winking scare quotes, Cotter's statement is a chilling acknowledgment of how the art market turns politics into style, the ruthless logic of trendiness demanding a certain oppositional structure—"in" versus "out," "hip" versus "outmoded"—as critical modes of analysis are shuttled between the two columns like hem lengths. However breezy, this declaration of our new "postethnic" moment is troubled, if not refuted outright, by recent efforts by artists, scholars, and curators who are engaged with debates concerning racial identity and its effect on artistic production and reception. Part of the bottom-line mentality of what has been termed "managerial multiculturalism" is an obsession with counting and statistics, and three recent books on black art in the United States and Britain take up, quite differently, the history and ongoing legacy of this numbers game. At their best they resist the rigid binarism that freezes interpretation into assessments of "hot" or "not" (or, to put it in more familiar terms, "positive" versus "negative" representations).
The very title of the anthology Shades of Black: Assembling Black Arts in 1980s Britain, covering the proceedings of a Duke University conference of the same name, utilizes a chromatic scale of "shades" to indicate how "blackness" in Britain is not confined to an either/or register but encompasses any number of nonwhite identities—South Asian, Caribbean, North African, mixed race, etc. The Black Arts Movement that emerged within the context of Thatcherism and anti-immigrant sentiment in Britain included such artists as Mona Hatoum and Keith Piper, whose work made visible the fractured nature of diasporic identity so as to explode the false promises of domesticated "inclusion." Skeptical of consolidating this loose affiliation of politicized, postcolonial artists into a single school, the editors of this volume do not shy away from its many contradictions. As a result, the book is a sprawling, uneven, but ultimately vibrant collection that includes historical essays, artists' conversations, a narrative account of the conference proceedings, and a comprehensive, ninety-page time line. Within these pages, the contributors often disagree profoundly about the impact of the Black Arts Movement. Artist and critic Rasheed Araeen accuses artists of relaxing their militancy and becoming prominent art stars, while by contrast curator Gilane Tawadros and artist Lubaina Himid mourn what they see as the current invisibility of those artists affiliated with the movement. Others resist totting up successes and failures, choosing instead to investigate broader movements in art, politics, and culture in the wake of the '80s. Periodization becomes a particular sticking point: How do we historicize such recent art? How much time needs to pass before these things can be appropriately assessed? Stuart Hall's "Assembling the 1980s: The Deluge—and After" gives a lucid genealogy of the Black Arts Movement that accounts for a "profound epistemological shift from what we might call the anticolonial to the postcolonial." This task of historiography is made all the more important by the persistence of '80s conservatism and the ever-weakening resistance to its pressures. As such, writes Hall, it is "an unsettled history in which everything is still urgently at stake." Likewise, while Kobena Mercer in "Iconography after Identity" argues that it might be "too early to try to define the 1980s as a closed or finished period," he nonetheless exhorts art historians to produce a history that pays attention to "the circuit and interrelationship between three very different sorts of things: artists (who tend to be human beings); art worlds (which are contingent sociological structures); and artworks (which are usually physical objects)." Given his call for a deeper iconography and attention to the "relative autonomy of the art object itself," it is thus a disappointment that these authors do not investigate the Black Arts Movement in terms of style or medium—the art objects and performances are neither described nor analyzed—but address only the wider institutional questions about criticism, public funding, and globalization. In contrast to Mercer, who sees art history as imperative to the task of appropriately assessing the decade, artist Keith Piper chastises "critics, art historians, and other empowered agencies" for "smooth[ing] the individual artist into grand historical continuums." Piper calls for artists to write their own histories, contesting the idea that some measure of distance, either personal or temporal, might be required in order to write these narratives.
The project of self-historicization is taken up by Kerry James Marshall in his 2003 exhibition, "One True Thing: Meditations on Black Aesthetics," organized by Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. Marshall resisted the impulse to summarize his work for what was originally conceived as a conventional midcareer survey and instead made a new, ambitious suite of works (including photographs, drawings, installations, mixed-media pieces, video projections, and paintings) that offers an extended rumination about African American histories and experiences. Despite the title, Marshall is interested not in any "one true thing" but in a multipronged approach that applies to his varied media as well as to the vast public archives from which he draws source material. When he writes, "The world I see is filtered through black-culture lenses," the plural matters; Marshall even invited three other artists to participate in his "solo" show in order to "challenge traditional assumptions about individuality, originality, and authorship." (Not exactly a strong "challenge," considering that words like originality have long been the stimulus for exasperated eye-rolling.)
With this invitation, Marshall also effectively appropriates the role of curator. In his essay "Back to Birmingham: Notes on Kerry James Marshall's Method," David Moos suggests that Marshall has been forced to be both critic and historian of his own work: "Marshall emerges as his own most articulate spokesman and nuanced interlocutor." Moos casts Marshall as maker and interpreter, that is, as artist and curator—a split position that the format of the catalogue echoes. The curator's brief foreword (itself an admission of the unprecedented level of involvement the artist had in the content of the exhibit) and the glossy color plates are oriented one way, while the essays are upside down—and inverted; one must flip the book over to read through it, suggesting that the images and the essays are in some sense at odds. Even though the book ostensibly boasts no "front" or "back," this somewhat clumsy design unfortunately reiterates the theory/practice divide. The book does not attempt to synthesize or comprehensively address Marshall's vastly diverse oeuvre. Rather, many of the brief essays orbit like satellites around the art, as do Nathaniel McLin's rallying cry about the lack of funding for African American art museums, for example, and philosopher Charles W. Mills's loose riff on the paradoxes of racial formations in the United States. Helen Molesworth's essay, which examines Marshall's "sustained relationship with photography," is a welcome engagement with the artist's material practice. Marshall's work demonstrates how difficult he is to categorize and how astonishing his range as a producer is. By and large, the catalogue attends to the two most visible roles Marshall has been asked to inhabit (promoter and artist), but this diminishes rather than expands our sense of him as a truly multimedia maker, a thinker, an advocate, and beyond. Even as One True Thing seeks to resist the superficial consolidation of his many guises into any unified "oneness," it is still haunted by the logic of dichotomy.
This bifurcation, of course, has a long history. In his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois posited that African Americans occupy a split identity, a "twoness" wrought from what he terms a "double consciousness"—a "sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others." The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston's 2005 exhibition "Double Consciousness: Black Conceptual Art Since 1970" paid explicit homage to Du Bois. The show included work by several generations of black artists whose work is loosely categorized as conceptual, from Senga Nengudi and Adrian Piper to Sanford Biggers and Ellen Gallagher. The accompanying catalogue demonstrates its debt to Du Bois graphically, as the opening pages are printed with ghostly photographs of the writer—one positive, one negative—that overlay his definition of double consciousness. Though Du Bois's notion implies a disjuncture or disembodiment that is optical in nature, more could have been made of how vision is a subject of ambivalence both in the writing of Du Bois and in the conceptual work of black artists. Curator Valerie Cassel Oliver defines conceptual art as "art in which the idea is central," yet the show demonstrates an appropriately complicated range of responses to "conceptualism," as much of this work also focuses on visual pleasures and is characterized by an attention to craft.
The art gathered under this widely cast net, however, does not always make sense within the strict rubric of doubling. What other axes of difference might be at stake here? And can Du Bois's idea of splitting be expanded to encompass ideas of slippage and illegibility? In Howardena Pindell's 1980 video Free, White, and 21, the artist depicts herself in elaborate whiteface. At the end of the tape, she peels the white skin off her face: This masquerade—which is as much about gender, age, and class as it is about race—is less invested in "twoness" than it is in multiplicity and fragmentation. Oliver's essay "Through the Conceptual Lens: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of Blackness" deals with art only schematically as the author charts the linguistically shifting nature of the term black. While the catalogue attempts to chart how black art came out of '60s social unrest and conceptualism's political investments in dematerialization and anti-institutionality, it relies on an illustrated time line to do the bulk of its historical work (and its ten brief pages pale next to the exhaustive chronology in Shades of Black). As a result, questions about education, regionalism, or the growing influence of an art market that has alternately fetishized and reviled overt markers of racial difference go unasked.
Shades of Black quotes anthropologist Janet Abu-Lughod's assertion that "[t]here is no Archimedean point outside the system from which to view historic ‘reality.' The only antidote to this dilemma is . . . triangulation." But how is the number three any better than two, or one? It still leaves us counting on one hand. In 1999, Kara Walker and other African American artists formed a "Negro Emancipation Association," calling for "not one stereotype, but many." Black artists are often confined by dyadic judgments of "goodness" or "badness," as if fed into an interpretive machine that has only one switch. Perhaps endless proliferation is one way out of the relentless Manichaeism that denies the complexities of black visual culture and an art economy that insists that we must wait for the gears of fashion to grind around again and declare racial politics "in."
Julia Bryan-Wilson is assistant professor of contemporary art history and visual culture at the Rhode Island School of Design.